WTW: The Trench Shotgun by Ian McCollum

Four USMC soldiers in Operation Steel Curtain
August 31, 2016  
Categories: Learnin'

Foreword by Mike the Mook:

We don’t know if it was reading too many Vietnam Memoirs when we were wee lads or watching too many episodes of Miami Vice as teenagers. But when a gun shop counter monkey turned us down for trying to buy a handgun at age 19 (I had been a Marine for nearly two years at that point!), we turned to shotguns for use on deployment in addition to our M16A2s. Shotguns have a rich history with the US Military, dating back to the War Between the States. Ian McCollum gives the venerable trench shotgun a once over. – Mook Out

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Weapon Trivia Wednesday: The Trench Shotgun by Ian McCollum

The US military was the only force in World War One to make significant formal use of shotguns in combat. A few of them were used sporadically during the German occupation of Belgium and probably by some French civilians at some point, but not in an organized manner.

Four USMC soldiers in Operation Steel Curtain

At the behest of General Pershing, the US expeditionary forces going to Europe were equipped with Trench Shotguns – Winchester 1897 and Winchester Model 12 pump action shotguns modified to mount Pattern 1917 Enfield bayonets (which were more common in US service than 1903 Springfield bayonets). These were, of course, used for typical rear-echelon duties like guarding prisoners, but they were also explicitly intended to be used as close-combat weapons in trench raiding and other combat.

1897 Trench Shotgun

The standard combat ammunition was 9-pellet 00 buckshot, with paper hulls that were common at the time. Unfortunately for troops, the paper hulls were designed to be stored in nice, clean, dry conditions; in the mud and wet of WWI combat, the hulls would often swell. This could result in a round jammed in the magazine tube or chamber or a round unable to be chambered. After the war, brass-cased 12 gauge ammunition would be introduced to solve this problem, but for the doughboys in France, the solution was to inspect ammunition before a raid, running each round through the magazine and chamber to ensure proper fit.

What makes the shotgun unique to the American forces was its image as an uncivilized weapon. In the armies of Europe, formal conscription and drill were the foundations of armed forces, with the rifle and bayonet the recognized weapons for combat. In the US, however, there was a frontier tradition, both in reality and in the imaginations of both Americans and Europeans. Frontiersmen, ranchers, bandits, homesteaders, and policemen in the US at that time had plenty of use with shotguns as all-purpose utilitarian weapons and recognized how devastating they could be at close range. The rough and tumble experience that made up part of the American mindset, while looked down upon as foolishly amateur by the European experts, was directly responsible for American issuing of trench shotguns.

Example of two trench shotguns.

Interestingly, these conflicting attitudes are also responsible for the complete lack of surviving photographs of trench shotguns actually being used in combat. US commanders like Pershing were constantly under pressure to put US units under the command of French and British commanders and did everything possible to remain autonomous, largely so that American troops under American commanders would not simply be treated as a new group of disposable cannon fodder to lead hopeless attacks. The use of shotguns contributed to the argument that American troops were too untrained and ill-equipped to be independent, and censors were ordered to destroy all photographic evidence of shotguns in combat.

Shotgun with a bayonet.

This was also done with an eye to German attitudes. It was the German army that had to actually go into combat against these shotgun-wielding American rogues, and they didn’t like it one bit. A formal complaint was made in September 1918 by way of the German ambassador to Switzerland after a couple Americans were captured with shotguns. Germany claimed shotguns were calculated to inflict egregious harm, and were prohibited by the Hague conventions. They threatened to execute Americans captured with shotguns or shotgun ammunition.

The US War Department took the complaint seriously, and wrote a formal legal opinion on the subject, which basically compared buckshot to fragmentation grenades, shrapnel shells, and 32ACP pistol bullets. The formal reply to the German government said that their claim had no legal basis, that the US would not stop using shotguns, and that the US would enact retribution on its German prisoners if any American were executed over the matter. The war ended just a few weeks later, though, and nothing further appears to have come of the matter (and nobody was actually executed on either side).

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Stories abound of doughboys using their 97’s to shoot German Potato Masher grenades out of the air like birds on the wing. The trench guns of the First World War would see service as late as the Vietnam conflict when they were replaced by more modern arms such as the Ithaca Model 37. Of course, we still see shotguns in US inventory from Mossberg, Remington and Benelli based on mission needs. With bitter irony we note that the humble shotgun was  declared a barbaric WMD by the same people who felt it was perfectly fine to use mustard gas.


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About the AuthorAuthor Ian McCollum

Ian McCollum is considered a gun nerd, even among gun nerds. He’s probably best known for his work as the founder and editor of Forgotten Weapons. McCollum is also a producer and co-host of InRange TV. As if these chops weren’t enough, he’s a technical adviser for the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners and a professional researcher for Armament Research Services. Somehow, he manages to balance such academic work with private consultation and practical shooting competition. He’s been published in publications such as Strzał Magazine and Popular Mechanics, and he has excellent taste in rare and obscure camouflage. If you’d like to support Ian’s goal of creating a comprehensive firearms encyclopedia, support him here: https://www.patreon.com/ForgottenWeapons. (Yes, we know he looks like someone crossed a beatnik with a Civil War cavalry officer — idiosyncrasies, eccentricities and peculiarities are the first requirements to write for us. He’s gonna fit in perfectly.

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